The time-honored tradition of inserting last-minute spending items into the state budget is alive and well in Trenton, as lawmakers made dozens of small additions that contribute more than $100 million to the spending bill that now awaits action from Gov. Phil Murphy.
Spending on things like senior centers and local road improvements are known as add-ons or “legislative priorities.”
They used to fall under the label of “Christmas-tree items” before reforms enacted about a decade ago, when Democrat Jon Corzine was governor, were supposed to have reined them in, or at least made the last-minute budgeting process more transparent.
But this year, Murphy, also a Democrat, has brought the Christmas-tree moniker out of retirement, spending the past few days criticizing some of the spending add-ons that were included in the $38.7 billion budget bill that the Democratic-controlled Legislature sent to his desk late last week. At least some of the add-ons now appear to be prime candidates for line-item vetoes, which is one of the ways Murphy can edit the budget bill before it becomes law. Other added spending, including for New Jersey Transit and extraordinary special-education aid for K-12 districts, could survive the governor’s scrutiny.
Murphy has also been pointing out in recent days that some lawmakers, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), have been saying the state faces major fiscal challenges that require significant reform, even as they inserted the extra spending into the fiscal year 2020 budget bill at the 11th hour.
“You can’t go around the state talking about the fact that we’re in dire fiscal straits … and at the same time add multiple hundreds of millions of dollars of pork,” Murphy said during a news conference on the budget in Paterson yesterday.
“Those two concepts are at odds with each other,” he said.
Later in the day, Sweeney issued a statement that accused Murphy of throwing “a tantrum” at his news conference. The Senate Democrats had also posted on social media a defense of the add-ons that specifically highlighted $6.5 million in funding for WorkFirst NJ, which provides temporary cash assistance and other support services to indigent families.
“The Legislature believes these items are major priorities!” the post said.
Meanwhile, coding in the official budget “scoresheet” produced by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services suggests at least some of the spending additions may have actually originated in the governor’s office. They include $3 million for the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange and $10 million in aid for the City of Trenton. Murphy’s office did not respond to a request for comment when asked about those items late yesterday afternoon.